I’ve had a couple of people ask me where I get my Korean groceries. I should just give a simple answer, but it’s just not a simple issue for me.
I grew up in a country where people eat real food. I don’t mean to be snotty, as I think 95% of the world eats real food, but the 5% who don’t live in the United States of America. When I say “real food,” I don’t mean local or organic or artisanal. I mean fish that looks like a fish and meat that looks like it came from an animal.
I’m not arguing that Koreans are inherently more enlightened eaters. There are picky eaters, like my cousin who refused to eat beans, and unadventurous eaters, like my mother who hates Malaysian food, to me and my sister’s everlasting disappointment. But in Korea, no one was impressed if you ate organ meat. No food was a “bizarre food.” (Except maybe cheese until about 10 years ago. My poor aunt tasted her first cheese on an airplane and promptly decided it must have gone bad.)
This means that grocery stores in Korea are wondrous places. The little grocery store at our local shopping mart has live crabs and glistening arrays of greens. Kim’s Club, the Costco in Korea, has a kimchi section the size of a small bodega.
And what do I have here in New York?
I have Han Ah Reum on 32nd St., in all its cramped and depressing unglory.
To be fair, I’ve found almost everything I need there, from persimmon vinegar to dried bellflower roots. But even though it is always so crowded, there isn’t enough turnover to keep the produce fresh. Every time I buy cucumbers there, they go bad in a day or two. There’s rarely more than one or two brands available, and all the fish and meat come in styrofoam and saran wrap packaging. I can’t really blame them. Their market consists of professionals and students who generally don’t cook very much. It is also not cheap.
Occasionally, if I am in the East Village, I go to M2M, which I almost prefer. It’s more of a general Asian market, catering to NYU students I suppose, which would explain the much smaller portions, like Korean radishes and cabbages cut up and sold in halves. But the produce often looks better, I can find almost every condiment/noodle/dried seafood I need, and I can avoid a trip to Koreatown, where I always fear I will run into someone I know from high school. (M2M apparently also has a branch up by Columbia, which I’ve never been to.)
It takes me an hour to get to Flushing, but the H-Marts there are definitely a step up from Han Ah Reum in Manhattan, even though they’re part of the same chain. The one closest to the 7 train is still pretty small, and all meat and fish are still pre-packaged, but the produce is better. You can also buy Korean vegetable seedlings, boxes of Asian pears, and even meju, the dried blocks of fermented soybeans that you can take home to make your own doenjang, or soybean paste.
Finally, on the rare occasions I’ve had access to a car, I’ve gone to the Super H-Mart in Ridgefield, New Jersey. The first time I went there, I drove my sister crazy by wandering around for hours. It is HUGE. It is the size of an American suburban grocery store, but with a seafood section that blows Whole Foods out of the water. Can you imagine Whole Foods selling sea cucumber? (No real butcher, though.) They have all the greens Koreans need—crown daisy, Korean parsley, perilla leaves, and giant scallions. They have tubs of organic tofu. The soy sauce takes up one aisle. They also have a decent food court, though nothing to write home about.
In a month or so, I hope to be spending less time at all these stores altogether and instead be harvesting some Korean produce from my garden. I may have to kill a squirrel or two first, though, if they don’t stop digging in my pots.
UPDATE: I found this incredible resource for gardeners who want to grow their own Asian vegetables: Kitazawa Seed Company. Also a great way to compare differences between Korean/Chinese/Japanese varieties and learn more about Asian vegetables and herbs in general.
If anyone has found a great source for even a few Korean ingredients elsewhere in New York, please let me know. Given that nearly every corner store in the city seems to be owned by Koreans, I’m surprised there isn’t more available. The last economics class I took was 12 years ago, but doesn’t the availability of a resource also help create demand?